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November 4, 2011

“What about the Bible?  And the Koran?  It doesn’t matter: We have Perfect Lives.”

– John Cage

I was on a train somewhere near the France/Spain border, en route to Toulouse in August.  At the second stop, three men got on.  One looked to be in his 60s and wore a tattered suit.  A second looked maybe ten years younger and wore outdoor work clothes and a cap.  A third was about my age with a windbreaker and a neck tat.  They all held onto their cigarettes as far into the train car as they could before extinguishing them.  They sat in the booth across from me & my traveling companions (we were eating cheese & playing cards).  The suit-wearer seemed in charge, and over the course of our shared time on the train, he revealed himself to be a.) landed gentry (“I have, eh, prince in my blood… I have land.”) b.) a fan of Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg and c.) somewhat humorously, given his music musical taste, an anti-Semite.  He was making some pitches for catholicism to me & my cohort (75% Jewish and quiet about it), and shortly thereafter caught sight of my reading material.  It was, of course, the libretto of Perfect Lives.

He saw only the title, and after he did a little slow-motion translating, renewed his proselytizing.  “You don’t need that book, huh, if you have le bible.  Whatever it tells you, it is not true.”  I tried to explain that it was music, it was art, and that it was a strange comparison, but here I am, three months later, and I realize that it’s maybe not such a strange comparison.

I’m not a person who has the stomach to initiate a challenge.  I would never dream of sending food back.  But sometimes, when it comes to harmless stuff like art (“like in sports, nobody dies…”), I get a little worked up when I think through things in my head.  I get defensive over what I love.  There are clear good guys and bad guys.  I won’t get into it right now, but suffice it to say, for some years, Perfect Lives & Bob in general have been pretty dead center in my defining of the good guys ethos.

In my head earlier today, I was thinking about the shame that we as supposedly open-minded people feel when we try to defend something as being our favorite this or favorite that.  Having a favorite makes it seem as if we’ve been duped into assuming a new dogma, and dogma is never particularly cool.  If something is your favorite, you’re probably closed off to all kinds of other stuff.  But I keep coming back to it: Perfect Lives is my favorite work of art.  It means more to me than any work of art I’ve ever encountered.

I feel guilty because it’s so engrained in me that older stuff, more vetted stuff, is probably greater, that 28 years is not long enough for a work’s mettle to truly be tested.  But F that S.  I’m 28.  If this work hasn’t been digested, than I have no opinions worth holding.  How could you like something that wasn’t made in your own life time?  Who cares about the great works of history when it’s so hard to see one’s historical place anyway, and our understanding of them are inevitably perversions?  But this isn’t about a rejection of old things, it’s about a realization of the value of one’s own era and one’s own feelings.

When people ask for a summary of Perfect Lives, it’s easy to say it’s about life in a small town, as animated by a bank heist and an elopement.  That sounds like opera plot, at least a little bit.  There’s a wedding in there, it must be a comedy.  But really, to me, Perfect Lives is about the power of words to affect change.  Of course that doesn’t put the butts in the seats as well, but it’s there in every episode, most obviously the Church.  Gelsey taught me & Paul that “I Do” is the definitional idea of performativity  – language affecting change in the world.  All the action in the opera takes place verbally – the bank manager is told there is no money in the bank, Buddy is told he won’t be served what he wants, Helen & John are told they cannot marry, R, in his hotel room, avoids telephone conversations lest it disrupt his morning activity, and Isolde, in the backyard, can’t find the words and numbers to figure out what she’s trying to find.

And here we are, about the perform this piece.  How will we perform it?  Mostly by getting up in front of people and talking.  Four month of practice to do that.  It just doesn’t sound like much when you put it that way, but sometimes the act of talking doesn’t seem up to the hype that the contents of the words can deliver.  But this is why I am where I am today (and Sunday), because I learned from this piece that not just as good a place to start as any, it’s better than most.  I’ve gotten an idea of how to perceive the seemingly mundane things around me from focusing my time & energy on this piece of art.  And you just don’t get to say that and mean it about too many works of art!

No, I don’t propose that Perfect Lives is a good book to substitute for the Bible or the Koran or the Vedas or what have you.  We have plenty of stories of that nature already, and what’s great about them is the continuity they provide in world culture.  What’s great about Perfect Lives to me is that after four months of particularly intense study, following seven years of periodic amazement, bafflement, and examination, I still have no idea about so much of it – how it’s put together, what it means, why it’s thrilling.  After intense musical deliberation, of which Paul’s recent post is only scratching the surface, and layers of marginalia on meaning, structure, & flow; after talking for the first time directly to the composer about where parts of it came from, I’m totally confident I could (and will) spend a lifetime digging into it and will be rewarded with a lifetime of new discoveries while always still being able to find the beautiful nonsense of it as well.  So here the comparison to a holy book is apt – I think of medieval Arabic and Hebrew poems written exclusively with buried scriptural references, everything leads you in multiple directions when you know where the connections are, but a good poem works just as well when you’re an atheist with no background in holy books.

My traveling companion on the train perceived correctly where I was taking my advice from, and maybe his jealousy was appropriate.  I’ve got my book of choice, he’s got his.  His book is fine by me, and frankly, I don’t take all the advice in my book, or even most, but I bet we get similar thinking mileage out of our books.  And I feel like mine’s really taken me on a journey, at least of late.  I look forward to sharing it with you real soon.

With love,


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